Climate scientists call on Labor to stop new coal and gas

July 19, 2022
Protesters demand renewables, at a climate protest in Brisbane, November 2021. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Searing heat, bushfires and smoke haze are prompting European authorities to urge people to stay at home. Of course, many have to work, and do so in facilities that are not equipped to withstand such “red alerts”.

Scientists say the out-of-control fires in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain are the result of climate change, and predict more frequent and intense episodes.

It’s a familiar horror story for Australians, especially those living on the east and southern coast who faced the horror of Black Summer’s ferocious fires.

Right now, however, catastrophic floods continue to engulf large parts of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.

The devastation is estimated to cost more than $4.3 billion in insured losses, but that’s only part of the story. Many people were not insured and are trying to pick up the pieces. There is a parallel discussion about the need to shift whole cities, such as Lismore, away from flood plains. The cost of rebuilding in Lismore is estimated at almost $1 billion.

Climate scientists have warned for decades that runaway, human-induced climate change would result in extreme climate events, such as ferocious fires and floods.

This is not news, even if politicians feign surprise.

The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990 made it clear that the consequences of runaway greenhouse gas emissions would be dangerous for humans and ecology. The global effort to limit warming has not been very successful, largely because high-emitting countries, including Australia, have only talked the talk.

Federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek had a chance to show that the new Labor government is breaking from the climate vandalism of its pro-fossil fuel Coalition predecessor in her July 19 Press Club speech.

Instead, she sidestepped direct questions about her approach to particular coal and gas projects. This does not inspire confidence for prospects of a break from the bad past.

She outlined the environmental challenges that have worsened in the past few years, as spelled out in the State of the Environment report. It gave new measurements on every aspect of Australia’s environment and heritage, covering rivers, oceans, air, ice, land and urban areas saying climate change is “exacerbating pressures on every Australian ecosystem”.

In response to the Environmental Council of Central Queensland’s (ECCQ) legal challenge to several enormous fossil fuel projects that require federal approval, Plibersek said in June that she would base her judgement on whether they “meet the legislative requirements for a reconsideration request”.

Here lies the problem. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) — Australia’s main environmental law — does not mandate federal environment ministers to consider the impact of emissions and climate change when considering new resource projects.

This is why there is so much concern: an act that is supposed to help reduce and eliminate the discharge of pollutants into the air, land and water is not fit for purpose.

ECCQ’s legal challenge is important because it focuses on how the EPBC Act considers the impact of fossil fuel projects.

Australian scientists, led by Tim Flannery, want Plibersek to “heed the science” and ensure all assessments of new gas and coal projects are “evidence-based” and include “Scope 3 emissions” from all projects, meaning that the greenhouse gas emissions from burning exported coal or gas at their final destination be taken into account.

In a climate emergency, taking Scope 3 emissions into account is a no-brainer.

If the ECCQ’s case is successful, it would halt: a “long-term” coal seam gas project at Origin Energy’s Australia Pacific LNG; the 25–30 year Saraji East coking coal project, owned by BHP and Mitsubishi; the Alpha North open-cut coal mine in the Galilee Basin, owned by Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal; Woodside Energy’s North West Shelf gas extension (the country’s largest fossil fuel development in north-western Western Australia) and Whitehaven Coal’s Narrabri underground coal project in NSW.

The Climate Council said: “All coal and gas projects harm our world heritage areas, precious species and vital natural resources. It is no longer tenable for the Minister to simply ignore the damage these projects do.”

Plibersek told the Press Club she would be guided by Professor Graeme Samuel’s independent review of the EPBC Act. However, among Samuel’s many recommendations, there is no mention of a “climate change trigger” or taking Scope 3 emissions into account.

Green Left has long campaigned for serious action to stop global warming, heeding scientists and First Nations’ peoples’ calls to leave new coal and gas in the ground. You can help us by becoming a supporter and making a donation to our Fighting Fund.

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